Thebacha candidate Jay Macdonald says if elected MLA, he’ll work closely to engage community leaders with governance and amplify their voices and concerns at the territorial level.
“Some key items on my platform are promoting Fort Smith and ensuring that we create the conditions to allow Fort Smith to grow as a community,” he told Cabin Radio.
Macdonald lists increasing the number of housing units, ensuring Aurora College offers diverse programming in the community, and planning for clean energy as key to Fort Smith attracting and retaining families and students, and thereby growing its economy.
“The Government of the Northwest Territories is committed to meeting environmental objectives and targets, and I think unless we provide an environment that allows those things to happen, those targets are really difficult to reach. We have to get away from our reliance on fossil fuels and go to clean energy options,” he said.
In addition to serving on town council, Macdonald works for the GNWT as manager of forest management services. He was previously a house parent for the Western Arctic Leadership Program and worked as a journeyman small engine mechanic in both the private and public sectors.
Incumbent Frieda Martselos is seeking re-election to a second term in Thebacha. Connie Benwell is also running for the position. Interviews could not be arranged with either Martselos or Benwell.
This interview was recorded on October 19, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Sarah Pruys: To start, I’ll get you to introduce yourself and chat about the things that are most important to you in this campaign.
Jay Macdonald: My name is Jay Macdonald and I’m a candidate for MLA in Thebacha. My number one priority is to take the time to ensure that all of the community leadership is engaged in governance in the community, and that we’re all working together to a common goal. Part of this is I started in my role as deputy mayor, and we’ve made progress on that front. I think there’s an opportunity here for more growth, and more involvement, and a really unified approach to bettering the lives of all of the residents of Thebacha.
And when you say you’ve already made some progress on that, can you explain what that progress is, and where else that still needs to go?
The town has been working with the local Indigenous governments on a collaborative leadership initiative, and to discuss and find ways to work together in areas of common interest. Obviously, there are some things that we’re not all going to be on the same page on. But we have had some meetings, we’ve had discussions, and we’ve had the community leadership come to the table. And unfortunately, the MLA [Frieda Martselos] was not a huge participant in this. I think if I’m successful, and people of Fort Smith feel I’m worthy to be MLA, I would certainly want to be part of that table.
OK, so to kind-of elevate the concerns from different leadership groups in town to the territorial level?
Yes, and I think collaboration within the community, with the town and all of the local Indigenous governments, is a really high priority. If we want to accomplish our goals, we have to work together.
Let’s talk a bit about the goals. What goals do you have? Or what goals does this leadership group currently have that you would hope to accomplish in your four-year term?
Some of the things that we’ve discussed – and some key items on my platform – are promoting Fort Smith and ensuring that we create the conditions to allow Fort Smith to grow as a community.
I think solving the housing crisis is certainly high on the list, as it is in all areas of the Territories. And that can only be accomplished with the cooperation of the community leadership, it’s got to be a collaborative effort.
We have to make sure that Aurora College provides diverse programming within this community as it evolves into a potential polytechnic in the future, and ensure that the Fort Smith campus remains viable and keeps its key role within the overall operation and organization of the college.
NTPC [Northwest Territories Power Corporation], our power here in Fort Smith, is another area of concern that we’ve had committee meetings on – it’s part of my role with the town and I think NTPC’s lack of planning has really left Fort Smith in a vulnerable position for future rate hikes. There’s really been no planning on infrastructure growth, on improving the infrastructure within the community. And this really limits our ability to go to greener energy options and to grow a business sector. So there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in that area to work with the NTPC board of directors, the local Indigenous governments, and the Town of Fort Smith to push that forward.
I think that’s really one of the key areas that will allow the community to grow. Renewable energy is the future. A commitment to invest in new technologies from the Government of Northwest Territories, I think, as we move forward is another key area. The Government of the Northwest Territories is committed to meeting environmental objectives and targets, and I think unless we provide an environment that allows those things to happen, those targets are really difficult to reach. We have to get away from our reliance on fossil fuels and go to clean energy options. That’s really high on the list.
We know the NWT is in a housing crisis, if not all of the country. You suggested working within that municipal leadership group to help solve this crisis. What ideas do you have to increase or improve housing in Fort Smith? And how does that leadership group fit into that plan?
There’s some options there. There are currently houses and buildings within the community that are owned by the GNWT or Aurora College or houses that aren’t occupied. I think there’s opportunity there to look at those and see how we can work with local Indigenous governments and the town to promote development of those; or if they need to be renovated or sold to the private sector, to allow for development of those properties to help reduce the housing shortage.
I think there’s opportunity to work collaboratively to provide other options. I know we have a lot of professionals that try to come to the community, whether it’s teachers or nurses, that are looking for affordable housing, or even housing in any right. I think collaboratively, we need to look at options and what the potential for growth is within our community. I think that overall, the approach to dealing with housing up until this point needs to be looked at significantly, because the cost of putting in homes under a lot of the programs that have been federally funded is way higher than what local folks can afford. It has an impact on the overall housing market within the community when we have these inflated projects coming in and essentially driving up the overall cost of housing in our community.
We need to look at those proactively and see how we can get more for less. I think there’s opportunity out there to work with different contractors and businesses within the North to try and promote that. And to ensure that when we’re getting federally funded dollars from the federal government, that those dollars are spent in the Northwest Territories – we’ve got many projects that have been delivered across the NWT and a lot of the work and product has come from the south, and I think that’s something that needs to be addressed.
Touching a little more on the potential polytechnic university: I know Fort Smith has felt very strongly that the headquarters of the campus should remain in Fort Smith. What will you advocate for as an MLA?
I think that Fort Smith is a big part of Aurora College and at this point, I don’t think that Fort Smith has been necessarily given all of the opportunity that I think they deserve, as the original home of the college. We need to ensure that the positions that are in Fort Smith currently remain in Fort Smith, and that the programming that’s delivered at Aurora College is best suited for the needs of northerners.
As well, we need long term programming. Aurora College can’t be simply about trades and short-term programming. It’s a huge part of our local economy and unless we have students and families that are coming for two or three-year programming … the short-term six, eight, ten-week programs really have a minimal benefit to our economy. So I think that’s important, that we’re in those discussions, that we’re talking with the board of governors, that we’re involved in the overall planning of the college and the programming, and how that’s going to lay out across the Territories.
There’s lots of opportunity here in Fort Smith for programming. We’re at the headwaters of the Mackenzie basin. ENRTP [Environment and Natural Resources Technology Program] is a big program here – there’s opportunity to incorporate other things through eco-tourism.
And I guess at this point, when we talk about the polytechnic, I can’t say that I’ve seen the money yet. So, one of the questions I have as we go forward is, where’s the funding coming from? And how is this whole plan going to roll out? They’ve sort-of put the cart before the horse to a certain extent in that there’s facility master plans that are out there, but we haven’t really seen the overall programming plan. I’d certainly want to be involved in the conversation about where the teacher education program will land, how that’s going to work, where the social work program is going to land and how that will look. I think that Fort Smith really needs to be included in that conversation, and ensure that the positions and what we provide to the college remains here in the community.
After quite an intense wildfire season, just looking at where Fort Smith is positioned geographically, I know a road through Wood Buffalo National Park toward Fort McMurray has been tossed around for quite a long time, but no progress has really been made on that. I wanted to see what you have to say about that, and if you think that is an important infrastructure project to consider or push for?
I would certainly be in favour of lobbying for the road through Wood Buffalo National Park into the south. But I’ve said this many times in my role as deputy mayor, at council and in other meetings: that road really needs to be driven from the south, north. The majority of the road is in Alberta. All of our Indigenous partner governments around the region that are on the edges of Wood Buffalo National Park, this road will benefit them as well in giving them an alternate route to exit in the event of wildfire, or any other type of incident that was to arise.
I think the benefit to the local economy would be huge. Right now, we’re at the end of the road. When you’re talking tourism, that’s not ideal. If we had the opportunity for folks to come and drive right through the Wood Buffalo National Park, from the south, and then continue on through the communities within the North and the South Slave region region, that would really be a huge benefit. But again, that comes back to the MLA and the local Indigenous governments and the Town of Fort Smith needing to work together with the Indigenous governments and the communities around Wood Buffalo National Park to promote that project, and see that it is driven in a way that benefits everyone. I think certainly Fort Smith would be a huge benefactor of that. And it is definitely something that’s needed, to allow us to have a second route out of the community in the event of another disastrous wildfire season like we had this year.
And for the last question, can you talk about why you want to run and become the next MLA for Thebacha, and about your qualifications as well?
The main reason I decided to run for MLA is I think Fort Smith really needs a voice in the Legislative Assembly. I think I am a person that has the ability to work with all groups, with everyone in any environment or on any issue.
I’ve been the deputy mayor for the past two years, and I’ve been working hard at that role, ensuring that the community is represented and that we’re providing input into some of the key issues. Some of those key issues are the issues that I talked about earlier with the supply of power and economical power to the community, with the future of Aurora College’s Thebacha campus, with the housing in the community.
I moved to Fort Smith in 1970 as a young child and I’ve lived here my whole life. I raised my family here, my children and my wife have lived here in the community, I have grandchildren that are here in the community.
Fort Smith is a place that really is deep in my heart. Over the years I was a very active volunteer. I was a house parent for the Western Arctic Leadership Program with my wife for 12 years and worked with young leaders from all across the Northwest Territories, from the Arctic Ocean to the Alberta border. The time I spent doing that really gave me a lot of insight into life in the North, into education, into the needs of the smaller communities.
That, along with the different cultural component – I’m an Indigenous Métis from Fort Smith – I actively participate in the community. I was a private sector as a journeyman small engine mechanic by trade, I worked in private business here in Fort Smith for 25 years, and I spent the last 13 years working for our Environment and Climate Change. I started as a small engine mechanic and worked my way up to the manager of forest management services.
So I have a really good understanding of the needs of this community. And I have a really good understanding of the things that we need to do to move forward as a territory, and ensure that the needs of the smaller communities are looked after as we do that.
Asked to declare any outstanding lawsuits, debts or other issues that might form a conflict if elected, the candidate said there were none.